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Blog: WHS #672: Alta Rock Art

The city of Alta is the highest up north that I have ever been – 80km closer to the North Pole than my previous record, Greenland’s Ilulissat. I had come just for the day to see its Rock Art – fly in on Friday evening, fly out Sunday morning. I made a half-hearted attempt of visiting Lille Raipas as well, one of the Struve sites on a hill just 5km out of town. But it rained for most of my stay in Alta so hiking was out of the question.

Overview of the site with boardwalk and fjord view

Alta’s Rock Art - consisting of 4 locations with carvings and 1 with paintings - has been ‘discovered’ relatively recently. In 1966 the rock paintings were found at Transfarelvdalen, the rock carvings followed between 1973 and 1978. The sites were inscribed on the World Heritage List only 7 years later – it makes one wonder why so quickly, before the dust had settled so to speak.

Much more carvings in the same areas have been discovered since. Conservation practices in this harsh landscape have also evolved a lot: they now regularly ‘clean’ the rocks with alcohol to avoid overgrowth of them by lichen (they apparently did not do that yet in 1987, when Solivagant visited). There wasn’t a management plan until the year 2000, sites those days got in because of a certain Wow-factor I guess.

Only the site at Hjemmeluft is open to tourists, that's where also the Alta Museum is located. Here I paid the 115 NOK entrance fee plus an extra 25 NOK for a good audio guide. You also receive a comprehensive booklet explaining the site, they even had one in Dutch. I first did a quick round of the exhibition rooms at the museum building itself, but found them a bit disappointing. Moreover, the real rock art was there waiting to be explored outside.

Reindeer corral

There are 2 boardwalk routes along the rock drawings: one takes 30 minutes and the other adds another 60 minutes to the shorter loop. I started going left, where the most famous of the drawings can be found. These all are still clarified by red paint – a practice that the site conservationists are now discontinuing and never even started with the more recently discovered rock art. With the paint, it’s easy to find the iconic images that are unique to Alta such as the reindeer being herded into corrals. I especially liked the drawing of a small fishing boat with a long fishing line attached, ending with an enormous halibut at the hook. The halibut is of the same size as the bear that is depicted next to it.

It started raining again heavily before I even finished the shorter loop. So I went inside and sat in the museum café just to wait it out. I had nothing else to do in Alta anyway. Tour groups trickled in steadily and went again. My patience was rewarded and I could continue on the trail after 1.5 hours or so. My focus was now on the groups of rock drawings on the other side of the bay. These are mostly of a later date and therefore closer to the shore. They have been left unpainted, which made the scenes very hard to distinguish on a cloudy day. There must be an image of a skier here ("the only one in Scandinavian rock art"), but I never found it.

Two whales 'interacting' with a natural circle in the rock

We now have at least 42 sites with rock drawings and 37 sites with rock paintings on the WH List. And there will be no end to it: ICOMOS considers that “Rock art is the most widespread cultural manifestation of humankind” and has even developed Rock art prenomination guidelines to help future nominees. Although all Rock art may look the same to an untrained eye, it can demonstrate OUV in various ways; varying from the aesthetic quality of the art (Vézère valley), the quantity of the findings (Valcamonica), the use of special practices or rarity aspects.

Alta is placed in the last category, thanks to its location. But I don’t know whether the early human activity so far north was meant, or the interaction with the landscape that made the prehistoric people of Alta use ‘clean canvases’ for their art. Whenever the sea level dropped and a fresh slate of rock was exposed yet without moss or lichen, they started covering it with Rock art.

Published 18 August 2018

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Blog: Official websites of WHS

Over the past 2 weeks I have done a hygiene / maintenance check on all 1092 pages of individual WHS on this website. Part of it was to verify whether a link to an official website was functioning, or whether we had one at all. The whole exercise brought me at a myriad of websites more or less geared to the specific WHS.

One of the excellent National Park Services websites

What’s a good official website?

I think these are the bare minimum requirements. It should show:

  • Opening hours (including updates on closure for renovations etc)

  • Entrance fees

  • Location with physical address

We link to the official websites especially for this kind of information: it would be impossible to keep track of changing opening hours for all 1092 WHS for example. The ‘owner’ of a WHS is in the best position to do that.

If an official website does just that and only that, it’s already fine by me. Additional information such as background stories and maps are a bonus however.

Which websites are allowed?

Ideally the official website is maintained by the body that owns the WHS. The closer to the source it is, the better the chance that it is accurate. Other options are the national (or regional) tourist boards or government bodies responsible for cultural heritage or nature conservation. Sometimes a private or community initiative website can be done so well that it also qualifies.

I try to avoid websites maintained by tour operators in this category. And those of individuals that plaster their homepage with commercial banners.

Official Taj Mahal website has do's and don'ts

What is the overall quality of the official websites?

Having looked at hundreds of potential and actual official websites, the conclusion is that the majority of the WHS do have pitiful ‘official’ websites. Considering that tourism potential is a main driver in nominating a site, why not create a simple website for it with just the 3 basic items of opening hours, entrance fees and location?

The positives

There are good examples as well of course. Every time I clicked on a site of the USA, I knew I could rely on the webpages of the National Park Service. They are as functional as they get, with no frills but including all the essentials including up-to-date weather warning. Another good bet are websites of cathedrals – they must be there to attract worshippers, but I nearly always found them very useful for general visitors as well.

The Chinese websites have improved a lot since I first placed the official weblinks. I’ve replaced several older ones with fully modern and bilingual official websites. The Peking Man Site at Zhokoudian’s website for example is exemplary. And I also like the neat url’s used for the Chinese WHS: such as www.zkd.cn for Zhokoudian , www.ayyx.com for Yin Xu and www.fjsfjq.com for Fanjingshan.

Sites in the UK, Scandinavia and Germany generally are also presented well.

The negatives

Even after searching in Spanish, few good official websites of Latin American WHS have come up. The one covering Machu Picchu is notoriously terrible.

Another low point are the Indian WHS. They are mostly maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, which is an organization focused on administration instead of service to visitors. Fortunately the Taj Mahal has its own website (the only dedicated one I could find among the Indian cultural WHS). It does well on the practical info, but the design hasn’t come up to the 21st century and it holds flowery descriptions such as “If one has a heart that beats and that beat throbs to seek, the purity of love in galore! Surely one deserves a visit to ‘The Taj’, as much as ‘The Taj’ deserves your visit once, and more!”

Website for Peking Man

Keep those suggestions for official websites coming

The result of my full check is that (a) all official and related weblinks on this website are working again, and (b) there’s now a list available of all sites without an official link – suggestions for such links are welcome via the Forum post!

Published 11 August 2018

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Blog: Tips for travelling to Georgia

Some 6 weeks ago I travelled around Georgia for 10 days, alone and by public transport. The country has become quite popular and fashionable lately: with international flights to Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi and no visa requirements for most nationalities, it has fully opened to foreign tourists.

Find below my top tips for travelling to this country, where I have tried to weave in some answers to earlier forum questions as well.

Church at Gergeti monastery, at the end of the Military Highway

1. Plan for anything between 5 days and 4 weeks

The capital Tbilisi is a great hotspot from where you can make several worthwhile day trips such as Georgian Military Highway (including Ananuri), Mtskheta, Gori plus Uplistsikhe and the David Gareji monasteries. Even if you only have 5 days to spare, it is worth it. But you can also entertain yourself considerably longer in Georgia: adding Svaneti will take at least 3 more days. Kutaisi (for Gelati) needs another night. But I have also seen itineraries of people that stayed for 4 weeks and found enough to do even for that amount of time.

2. Choose your transport to Upper Svaneti wisely

Although there are flights now from Tbilisi to Mestia, they are notoriously unreliable. They are not recommended when you are on a tight itinerary: if the flight gets cancelled last minute, you’d be too late to make it to Mestia / Ushguli the same day. I used the modern day train between Tbilisi and Zugdidi to cover most of the distance. I booked it beforehand online – it only costs 5 EUR for the 5 hour trip. You can also take the night train, that will save the cost of a hotel but it’s a much slower ride. When I arrived in Zugdidi at about 1.30 pm, a handful of shared taxi’s to Mestia were waiting to fill up at the train station. One of them even went all the way to Ushguli.

Freshly kneaded Khinkali

3. Be stable on your feet!

One of the recurring features in Georgia is that paths and minor roads rarely are flat, paved, even or well-maintained. Add a bit of rain and even going to a restaurant at night becomes a slippery adventure. If you have trouble walking, save Georgia for another time.

4. Avoid Georgian Airways

Despite being the flag carrier of Georgia, Georgian Airways is a privately owned air company with low cost tricks similar to Ryanair. Worse though is that they do have no service attitude at all. My outbound flight was rescheduled to two days earlier – without any communication. I only found out when I tried the online check in 24 hours before my original departure date. Requests by phone and e-mail for a refund were ignored. See other complaints (which conform that my experience is no incident), and decide for yourself. I changed to Ukraine International Airlines which as before treated me well.

Wall painting in Gelati monastery

5. Enjoy the cuisine

The Georgian cuisine is very distinctive and one of the prides of this country. On my tour along the Georgian Military Highway we were fed a supra, a feast of all kinds of Georgian dishes. I especially liked the aubergine-walnut salad & aubergine appetizers. And we got to try folding our own khinkali. But already a few days into the trip I got bored by the lack of variety that you can get in local restaurants. I even ran into the McDonalds straight from the minibus between Mestia and Kutaisi for 2 cheese burgers! And my answer to “How many khachapuri can one eat?”: I once ate a whole one, but most of the time I was fully stuffed after three quarters. It’s like a very heavy pizza with only cheese one it….

Published 4 August 2018

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Responses to Tips for travelling to Georgia
Els Slots (10 August 2018)

I stayed in Ushguli only for about 2.5 hours - just for sightseeing that's enough (if you're into hiking you could stay overnight). The ride there (and back) from Mestia was 2 hours each way.


Tamara Ratz (10 August 2018)

Great tips, thanks. How long did you stay in Ushguli?


meltwaterfalls (6 August 2018)

Thanks for answering my khachapuri question.

Always handy to know!

thanks again for these run downs, they become a really useful guide when starting to investigate visits.


Blog: WHS #671: Visby

With my visit to Visby over the past weekend, I finally ‘finished’ Sweden. I did so on a nightly public transport expedition of over 1,600 km: bike from my house to local train station (5 min) – train to airport (45 min) - fly Amsterdam to Stockholm (1.5 hr) – pricey Arlanda Express train to Stockholm central station (20 min) – Batbussen to Nynäshammn (45 min) – ferry to Visby (3h15 min), arriving at 5.45 in the morning. If you ever end up on the streets of Visby via the same early ferry, I’ve got two practical tips for you: (1) Marthas café opens early for breakfast, at 6 am on weekdays and 8 am on Saturday, and (2) there are hammocks for public use along the beach road next to the botanical garden to catch up on your sleep.

The semi-circular Mill Tower

After breakfast and having tried to get some rest on a park bench (I only discovered the hammocks later in the day), I started my visit properly with a walk along the exterior of the city walls. They do not look that impressive coming from the harbour, but that's because it is the only part of the structure where the full circle is interrupted. The other 3.44 km of the in total 3.6 km is intact.

The wall, which is up to 10 meters high, is reinforced every few meters by a tower. 36 of those are still standing and that adds to the wall’s majestic look. Alternating with the slender towers there are also lower 'saddle towers'. Especially these are struggling to stay upright; from the end of the 19th century on they have been supported by iron poles.

The sandy walkway along the wall is just wonderful for an early morning walk. I can imagine that if you live here you do this loop every day: I met many people jogging or walking their dogs. This surely must be among the Top 3 of city walls on the List, rivalling the one at Carcassonne with its numerous towers and height.

Stepped gable roof

Within the city walls my first stop was the Gotland Museum. It shows the history of the island where Visby is located. It has exhibitions across 3 floors, but the best is already right at the entrance: a hall full of rune stones. Well-known from the rest of Scandinavia of course, they often only have inscriptions. But the Gotland ‘picture stones’ also have pictures and geometric motifs. Just like with petroglyphs, the people carved scenes from their daily lives into the stones. So there are many images of ships here!

The museum also exhibits wooden sculptures from Visby's churches. The old town had no less than 12 churches in its heyday. These arose by the grace of the international contacts of its inhabitants: it apparently also helped your commercial position to say that you’re a Christian. Nowadays there is only one in use, the big 13th century Domkyrka.

The rest of the churches still adorn the streets in a dilapidated state, which is a somewhat odd sight as they would have been cleared away over the centuries in most cities. Most are also closed to the public because of their condition. But I can recommend a visit to the double church of St. Hans and St. Peters where a cafe has built its terrace among the church ruins.

Church ruins of St. Hans and St. Peter

I had expected more from the old houses and public buildings in Visby's town center. Or better said: I had expected something else. Most buildings date from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and are therefore far from medieval. I also did not discover one to enter (with the exception of the omnipresent souvenir shops selling woolen products). Visby is sometimes compared to Bruges, but this is a completely different cityscape and certainly lacks the cramped medieval housing conditions. It's also not comparable to the later Hanseatic towns such as Gdansk which I recently visited. It has a much more generic Scandinavian feel to it.

Published 28 July 2018

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Blog: Uplistsikhe Cave Town

Uplistsikhe Cave Town is another easy day trip from Tbilisi. I visited it on my last afternoon in Georgia. From Tbilisi’s Didube metro and bus station I took a shared taxi with destination Gori – the driver was calling for passengers at the metro exit. 5 of the 6 spots in his car were quickly sold, but the final one proved to be difficult. I had planned to arrive at Uplistsikhe at about 16.30 to have 1.5 hours at the site until it would close for the day, so I was not prepared to wait indefinitely. In the end I paid up another 5 lari to get the taxi going.

View of the surroundings

In Gori the driver dropped off everyone at his or her destination. Grabbing the commercial opportunity, he wanted to bring me all the way to Uplistsikhe (10 km away). Quite convenient for me, and I would worry about the return trip later (I easily found a taxi back to Gori).

Uplistsikhe turned out to be a fully developed tourist attraction, with a full parking lot, a souvenir shop and a café. You also have to pay an entrance fee here, a rarity in Georgia. It costs 7 lari (2,35 EUR).

The Cave Town of Uplistsikhe was inhabited since the 4th century BC. It developed into an important political, cultural and religious center in Antiquity. It remained inhabited until the 13th century. The city lies on a river and is built on and against a cliff. In its heyday, no less than 20,000 people lived here. It is hard to imagine that they all lived in caves: down on the ground there is also a large area with what look like ruins.

Stone carved ceiling in one of the caves

I had mentally prepared myself for another demanding climbing expedition like at the David Gareji Monasteries. Fortunately though Uplistsikhe is a lot less steep and they have added 'real' steps. The whole area is not that big either: after the first climb you can already see the caves. They all look similar: opened up, sometimes with niches and stone benches inside. The ceilings are almost all blackened. There is little decoration, with the exception of a few ceilings and a pillar here and there.

Towards the top of the cliffs the public buildings of the city were located, such as a basilica of considerable size. These, and the church at the top, date from the second flowering period of Uplistsikhe. The city had then developed into a Christian stronghold against the Islamic occupation of Georgia. In the end the invading Mongols caused the city to be abandoned.

Christian stone basilica above one of the caves

I'd recommend to visit Uplistsikhe when you have a few hours to spare in Gori or Tbilisi. Do not expect anything too spectacular though, as most caves are empty and the story about how they were used has been mostly lost (or never made it into an English translation). I wonder for example whether there were archaeological remains uncovered at the river level as well. Thinking of similar sites (Kernave!) the common people usually lived on the lower grounds and the nobility and priests at the strategically safe positions at the top. The Bradt Guide Georgia mentions "a village immediately to the west, whose inhabitants were removed in 1968", which might be an explanation of what is visible as well.

Published 21 July 2018

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Blog: Tbilisi Historic District

The Tbilisi Historic District is part of the Tentative list of Georgia. It’s a small neighbourhood in Georgia’s capital that can be explored on foot. The rest of the city is of course much bigger: over a million people live there and one moves around the easiest with the subway that still dates from Soviet times. I went several times to Didube metro station for example, to take buses to Mtskheta and Gori from the eponymous bus station. A ticket costs a mere 0.5 lari (0,17 EUR).

View of the Historic District

I first explored the Historic District by the 3-hour 'free' walking tour of Tiblisi Hack Free Tours. This was under the guidance of Russian(!) Anya and together with about 15 other tourists from all corners of the world: Lithuania, Ukraine, Germany, Canada, United States, Jordan. Her key question was "Do you think Tbilisi is more Asian or more European?" This befits one of the two key elements in Tbilisi’s claim to OUV: the location of Georgia (and especially Tbilisi) on the cross-roads of Europe and Asia with all consequent historical conditions. I think the Historic District is more oriental, to a certain extent it resembles Istanbul or Sarajevo. The traditional sulphur bath houses and their domes also contribute to that image.

The Historic District also has many dilapidated and vacant houses. These were abandoned by their owners in the 80’s and 90’s, when the economic situation in Georgia was very bad. There are no clear plans what to do with them. It has made the area especially attractive for artistically minded photographers.

Great Synagogue

The other claim for OUV is “always multi-national, free and tolerant in the respect of religious confession”. Church visits in general are a main pastime for tourists in Georgia anyway, and the Historic District of Tbilisi is one big mix of religious expressions. We had a look at the interior of an austere Catholic church, walked past 2 synagogues and a mosque, and visited 2 Georgian Orthodox churches. One of the latter (Sioni Cathedral) is home to 'Saint Nino's Cross' - an important relic of the original wooden cross that Saint Nino made on her way to Mtskheta. It was homemade, of two tree branches tied together with her hair - hence the peculiar drooping horizontal arms of the Georgian cross.

Also typical for Tbilisi are the many stray dogs. They lie down on the pavement, or are out with friends. They usually look in pretty good condition, they are fed by local people. Many also wear a yellow label in their ear: a sign that they have been vaccinated against rabies. On foot you are not bothered by them, but I saw them chasing cyclists a few times.

Core of the Historic District; the Uzbek-style building is a bath house

Outside of the Historic District, the main boulevard Rustaveli Avenue is also worth visiting. This is the street with all the Important Buildings. It includes the Opera, the Theatre, the National Museum, the former Parliament and the Academy of Sciences. At this street the Soviet era, which lasted for Georgia from 1921-1991, is still the most touchable. The National Museum is unmissable: the absolute highlight is in the basement, in the Treasury. Here hundreds of small gold objects from Colchis are exhibited. Colchis was the name under which this region in Classical Antiquity was known for its gold mining. The objects are up to 6000 years old.

Published 14 July 2018

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Responses to Tbilisi Historic District
Els Slots (14 July 2018)

Hi Aleksandr! I find it really hard to say about Tblisi. It certainly is a city worth visiting for a day or 2, and there are many good day trips to be done from there. However, it does lack outstanding individual sights or monuments. In case of a nomination they'd go more for a 'crossroads of cultures' theme, which still would need a lot of explanation and openness to non-Georgian elements to make it convincing.


Aleksandr (14 July 2018)

Dear Els, so what is your overall opinion, whether Tbilisi Historical Centre deserves to be inscribed? Much work is to be done, especially for those vacant houses and modern non-fitting buildings being constructed, but I found this city very beautiful and worth being inscribed if careful preparatory work is done for this.
P.S. Try to found Usakhelauri wine there. It very rare and quite expensive semi-sweet wine, beleived to be the favorite of Stalin. I liked it very much.


Blog: WHS #664: Gelati Monastery

Since the retreat of the controversial Bagrati Cathedral, Gelati Monastery can shine in its own right. And what a sight this is. Its wall paintings are overwhelming and intriguing at the same time, because the depicted people far exceed the average list of Christian holy figures. They show saints and historical figures from Georgia and the Byzantine empire in their most beautiful clothing.

St. Nicholas church

The 12th century Gelati Monastery dates back to the Golden Age of medieval Georgia. The complex consists of 3 churches, a free-standing bell tower and an academy building. It was for a long time the cultural center of Georgia, with its own academy where the best scientists, theologians and philosophers worked.

From the center of Kutaisi a minibus leaves 5 times a day directly to this monastery. It starts from a small parking lot with some other local minibuses at the back of Meskhishvili Theatre. The ride costs 1 lari (0.30 EUR). The 4pm bus that I took only transported women: a few living along the route who had gone shopping in the city, another tourist and me. We two were the only ones that remained on the bus til the end. You can already see the monastery from a distance, on a hill amongst the greenery. The drive takes only a short 20 minutes.

Mural depicting western Georgian kings

The complex has the (for Georgia) usual set of souvenir and snack stalls in the parking lot. A small courtyard contains the 3 churches, the bell tower and the academy building. I immediately went for the main church. Its interior is covered with murals over the entire surface. There are innumerable scenes and portraits, clearly made in different periods. I was happy that I brought my Bradt travel guide with me: in its 2 page description of the Monastery the names of the most prominent persons depicted are given.

Above the altar in the dome there is a golden mosaic of Mary with Child - a Byzantine-inspired mosaic that is unique in Georgia.

There is more to see at the corners of the courtyard. At the south gate for example, which contains the tomb of David 'the Builder' - the 12th century king who founded this monastery and many other important buildings in the Golden Age of Georgia. Everyone who left the monastery had to walk over his grave. The remains of an 11th century iron door from Persia are still hanging in the gate, once taken back to Georgia by David's son as war booty.

Grave of a beatified person

Of the 2 smaller churches the St. George is the most beautiful. Just like with the big church they are restoring its exterior and it is partly covered in scaffoldings. You can not enter it (it is reportedly only open at weekends and is often used for marriage ceremonies). But the doors leave an opening through which you can see the inside: this is perhaps an even bigger wall painting than the main church. A lot of bright red and blue has been used.

The minibus schedule allows one to have 1 hour at the Monastery, which is really too little. I spent about 1.5 hours there and waited for the last bus of the day (6.20 pm) to bring me back to Kutaisi. Distance wise this is walkable as well as it is 8km, but there are one or two nasty climbs en route.

Published 7 July 2018

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Blog: WHS #665: Qalhat

Qalhat has been one of the surprises of 2018’s WHC session. It got inscribed, after a proposal to overturn the Referral advice by ICOMOS. I was in Oman last April and of course I was aware of the upcoming nomination. At the time though I decided to give it just a quick look, mostly because of the experiences at the site a week or two before by Martina & Ivan. They were not allowed to enter and the archaeological site seemed closed.

View from the highway

After staying overnight in the not too exciting city of Sur, I left my hotel at 7.30 the next morning. I had a hike on my agenda and needed to start before the heat got too bad. But unfortunately at 7 o'clock it felt already like being in a hot air oven. My planned hike was at Wadi al-Shab, about 25 kilometers north of Sur.

On the way there you will also pass the ruins of the ancient city of Qalhat. There is a small parking space at the highway (on the direction towards Muscat from Sur) that is a good vantage point to take pictures and have a good look at its setting. The only major thing that still survives from this trading town is the Bibi Maryam mausoleum. It is easy to spot from the highway, as well as a total overview of the smallish archaeological area that is near the coast.

Some unexplained part of the archaeological area

Qalhat is linked to the history of the Kingdom of Hormuz, a rather unknown city-state that might have been the Dubai of its era. It controlled the Strait of Hormuz from the 10th-17th century. They developed Qalhat on the opposing Omani coast as a secondary city to control both sides of the entrance to the Persian Gulf. It was mostly destroyed by an earthquake in the late 15th century and further destroyed by ransacking Portuguese in 1507.

Qalhat at the time was known to the international community as Calha. It appears under that name in the historic atlas compiled and drawn by Abraham Ortelius from 1570. Calha was visited by both Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo on their respective travels, which attest to its prominent status in the 13th -14th centuries. Ibn Battuta noted that it had "fine bazaars and one of the most beautiful mosques." This seems to relate to a larger city than the space covered by the current archaeological site.

Bibi Mariam Mausoleum

It’s easy to become cynical about a site of an obscure civilization and where apparently so little remains. A more up and close report of someone who managed to enter the site in 2011 shows that there is indeed more to it. He noticed a crypt, a cistern and smaller domed structures. He wonders about the Bibi Maryam mausoleum, whether it was a mausoleum indeed or the long lost Great Mosque (according to a comment to his post, the Mosque has been found closer to the coastline).

I hope the Omani authorities will further excavate the site and provide it with on site information panels or a small visitor center. From what I understood from the acceptance speech of the Omani delegate at the 2018 WHC session, it will eventually reopen to the public.

Published 1 July 2018

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Blog: WHS #663: Upper Svaneti

Upper Svaneti is among the most remote WHS in Europe, and one that has been on my travel wish list for long. It was a fairly dangerous place until 2003, “when robbing the foreign visitors were almost a daily thing”. Since then it has arrived slowly on the beaten tourist track. The road to get there is steadily improving as well: it took me 2.5 hours from Zugdidi to Mestia, and another 2 hours to cover the final 44km from Mestia to the Ushguli valley with the WHS (full-size marshrutka’s still take longer than the shared jeep-taxi’s which I took). I stayed for 3 nights in the Svaneti capital of Mestia, a lively town similar to a ski resort.

Traditional houses in Chazhashi

At the central square of Mestia, jeeps and minibuses congregate daily to take tourists on a trip to Ushguli. The asking price for a spot in a jeep for a return trip is 50 lari (17 EUR), a private car costs 200 lari. I did not want to wait for a jeep to fill up, so I splurged on the private option. The road still needs a 4WD because of the many potholes that fill up with rain water, and the muddy state of it all. We did encounter some brave cycling tourists along the way however. The surrounding landscape is just beautiful: narrow, green valleys with high peaks on either side which still hold a lot of snow. This area has the highest mountains in Georgia, including the Shchara (5201 meters). Along the way we already passed many villages with the characteristic Svaneti tower houses, also Mestia still has a lot of them.

Despite its grand name, the Upper Svaneti WHS has a ridiculously small core zone. In the Ushguli valley there are 4 villages or hamlets dominated by tower houses, but of those only Chazhashi has been inscribed as it was already under some form of protection. According to the UNESCO description, it “has preserved more than 200 medieval tower houses, churches and castles.“ Well – this is really not true! As you can see from my second photo, it has only some 25 buildings (28 people live there according to the 2014 census).

Chazhashi village, with Murkmeli in the distance

In Chazhashi the tower houses are close together, and no modern buildings have been constructed among them. The streets are unpaved, and slippery due to a combination of mud and cow manure. The special feature of the tower houses is that the upper floors were used as watchtowers, and on the bottom floor the people and their animals lived together. These animals are still trampling through the streets: pigs, dogs, cows. Young ‘cowboys’ tend to the cows on horseback.

On the other side of the river there are 2 more villages: Chvibiani and Zhibiani. These are more picturesque than Chazhashi at first glance: especially because they have the snowy white mountains as their backdrop. But there are more modern buildings standing between the residential towers here. These villages hold two tiny churches and a museum, but I found everything closed on a Monday.

Finally my driver pointed me to a path uphill. Here you end up at the remains of the Tower of Queen Tamar. This supposedly was the place where the population gathered during the Middle Ages to discuss the battle plans. Here the fortress walls were once the strongest, but in the 1930s much was destroyed by the Soviets. Now it is mainly a beautiful viewpoint over the villages and their towers.

Remains of the Tower of Queen Tamar

A trip to the core zone should be complemented by a visit to the modern Svaneti museum in Mestia and a look into the interior of a Svaneti tower house. The museum’s highlight is a room full of icons, taken from the villages around Mestia. They have been painted in the naïve Svan-style. In Mestia as well there are 2 tower houses open to visitors. I visited the Mikhail Khergiani house, a tribute to a local mountain climber. In its main room on the first floor it can be seen how animals and humans shared the living spaces, to keep warm during the very cold winter nights. Via two ladders I climbed the tower itself – only at the top there are openings to get a 360 degree view of the surroundings.

Published 27 June 2018

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Blog: David Gareji Monasteries

The David Gareji Monasteries and Hermitage are located in the far southeast of Georgia, right on the border with Azerbaijan. There is no public transport that goes all the way there, but every day at 11 o'clock a special shuttle bus (The Gareji Line) departs from the Pushkin statue in the center of Tbilisi. This will take you to the monastery for 25 lari (8 EUR), and will return 3 hours after arrival. You cannot reserve this bus and I was afraid that it would be very busy on a Saturday when I had planned to visit. It was, but in that case they just send another bus.

The Lavra monastery and its cave cells

The drive there takes 2.5 hours, with the landscape becoming more and more beautiful along the way. At the end you’re in a vast steppe with rolling green hills and many birds. The monasteries are built against a cliff, and that gives them their special charm. In the rocks there are hundreds of natural and carved caves: they were used as monks cells, chapels and churches. The site consists of two parts: the Lavra monastery at the entrance, where a dozen or so monks live and they are busy renovating at the moment. And the Udabno monastery, at the top of the rocks.

The shuttle bus is ‘transport only’, so for finding the sights we’re on our own. I started to follow an arrow marked 'Udabno' that points up from behind the monastery shop. This turned out to be a steep climb on a narrow sandy path with boulders. I gave up on that after 10 minutes. I noticed another path that runs halfway up the cliff and rises more slowly. According to the schematic map that I received from the bus company you have to be able to go up via this route as well, the paths form a loop.

Chapel at the ridge

Walking here is a lot easier, and soon I passed a cave carved into the rocks - with a staircase cut from the rock so you can get to the entrance. Unfortunately the cave is closed by a door.

It took me an hour to get to the mountain ridge. At a small chapel there I encountered a lone Georgian soldier, guarding the border. In determining the modern boundaries between Georgia and Azerbaijan, they only put a straight line on a map. That worked out unfortunate for the David Gareji monasteries: the lower half (Lavra) now lies in Georgia and the upper one (Udabno) in Azerbaijan. Walking on the mountain ridge, you're exactly on the border. The Azerbaijani border post is a long way away though and a visit to both sides of the monastery is possible without border control.

After walking for 1.5 hours I still had not reached or discovered the upper monastery. And I wasn't the only one, I frequently met other tourists coming out of a cave or chapel in the hope of finding the famous murals. My suspicion is that it is located on a lower ridge on the Azerbaijan side: there you can see another series of caves, and I saw also people walking there. However, I did not want to descend anymore because you'll have to climb the same part back up again! To complete the hike I still needed to go down the steep part, back to the parking lot and the lower monastery.

Inside David's(?) cell

After finally having arrived unharmed at the bottom again, I went to see the Lavra monastery. It looked closed because of the renovation, but you can still visit the courtyard and the church. The latter appears rather new on the inside, but has been reported here since the 6th century. It contains the tomb of David Gareji, the founder of the monasteries who came along with 12 other monks from the Middle East. The courtyard has one cave where you can look inside, the others are behind closed doors. This apparently was the cell in which David lived. Unfortunately the picturesque row of cells above it is always closed to visitors.

P.S.:

In the Lonely Planet travel guide you will find good instructions to get to the Udabno monastery. You must indeed follow the steep path to the right behind the watchtower until you reach a half-rusted railing. Below that, the path runs to the left to a ledge below, on which are the caves that form this part of the monastery. You can also get there via the long route to the left which I took (and which is less steep), but then you need - if you are as bad a climber as I am - up to 3 hours for the entire tour.

Published 23 June 2018

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